César Aira, Varamo

César Aira occupies some fairly unique territory in today’s literary landscape. Each of his novels is slim but potent, full of grand ideas and generous doses of sentence-by-sentence pleasure. Yet for all their pedigree, they don’t feel overly dense. Aira’s books are freewheeling, almost jazzy, and always supremely confident in their ability to hold your attention, no matter how long or tenuous the tangent.

They’re also designed to be consumed quickly—which makes sense, considering how fast Aira writes them. To date the 53-year-old Argentine has penned more than 80 books, and over the past few years they’ve started getting published in English, at a steady drip, by the venerable New Directions. In this way, Aira is like a band that decides to only release singles, never a full-length album.

That’s the fun part. And, really, it cannot be overstated how fun it is to read Aira.

What can be difficult, however, is trying to precisely follow the man’s train of thought. Since his plots pivot off of the slightest moments and sentences—sometimes even just a word or two—it’s easy to feel lost in his dust, especially since Aira is not one to look back and see if you’re keeping up. Sometimes the result is a 100% successful mind-meld, and the feeling is euphoric; sometimes you just cannot figure out what he’s on about.

Aira’s most recently translated novel is 2002’s Varamo. It’s ostensibly the story of how an anonymous Chinese bureaucrat in Panama came to write “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Child” in a single evening of manic inspiration—despite the fact that he’d never written so much as a line beforehand. But in a typical Airean (Airaian? Airaesque?) twist, we spend the entirety of this short book in the day and night leading up to that eureka moment, and see nothing of the composition itself.

To be sure, plenty of things happen to Varamo along the way. He collects his monthly pay, in cash, only to discover he’s been given counterfeit bills. He goes home and works on his amateur embalming project, showing a fish playing piano. Later he witnesses a traffic accident, and gets dragged into the secret world of a bizarre sport called regularity races. He hears voices, and buys candy. Varamo’s increasingly panicked inner monologue keeps us company every step of the way.

Given the above rationale about how Aira’s books operate, I’m hesitant to say that Varamo is objectively the best of the three books of his I’ve read so far. But it’s definitely the one I responded to the strongest. Its hero taps into a rich literary tradition that I like to call the Smart Person Over-thinking Everything, which dates back at least to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. And this time around, all of Aira’s madcap detours came at just the right times; like a space shuttle shedding its booster rockets, Varamo keeps getting propelled toward bigger and better things.

Some have pegged Aira as the next big crossover Latin American writer, a title that’s currently held by the late Roberto Bolaño. But my guess is that his tendency to write in such brief, cryptic, intensely off-the-wall spurts will prevent him from ever becoming a lasting household name. That’s far from a bad thing. Aira is perfectly set up to enjoy a long career as a cult figure beloved by a select but devoted audience. Those who seek him out will be amply rewarded.

Then again, last year Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe told Katie Couric he’s an Aira fan—so anything is possible. Maybe glitz and glamour really are just around the corner. Anyone unfamiliar with his work would do well to pick up Varamo and give it a test drive. I’ll be first in line either way.

Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, 96 pp, $13.99, paperback

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, March 18, 2012)

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